Eliminating H5N1 avian influenza could take decades

by Bryan Salvage
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ROME – A new Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) study states eradicating the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus from poultry in the six countries where it remains endemic will take a decade or more.

Recommendations are made in the study for each country on measures that should be taken during the next five years to move them towards virus elimination. The study also calls for a sustained commitment to eradication efforts by governments where the disease remains endemic and by international donors.

Peaking in 2006, the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1 HPAI) was reported in 60 countries. Since then, the study states most countries have managed to eliminate it — but the virus remains firmly entrenched in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam due to a combination of three factors.

Factor one relates to the structure of the countries’ national poultry sectors. Endemically infected countries usually feature complex production and market chains, with poultry reared and sold under conditions offering little protection from influenza viruses and weak producer and service provider associations for supporting farmers.

Factor two is the quality of public and private veterinary and animal production services, which are not always able to detect and respond to infections — or identify and correct underlying structural problems in production and marketing systems.

Factor three relates to the level of commitment to dealing vigorously with H5N1. "The fear of H5N1 does not necessarily translate into concrete plans for virus control and elimination," the study noted.

"Approaches to Controlling, Preventing and Eliminating H5N1 HPAI in Endemic Countries" concludes offering detailed sets of recommendations targeted to each country where H5N1 HPAI remains endemic. They contain measures focused on outbreak control and response, gathering and analyzing information and disease prevention and risk reduction.

The study titled A Global Strategy for Prevention and Control of H5N1 HPAI, developed by FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), warns eliminating infection from countries where the H5N1 virus is endemic will require consistent engagement and support. It advocates a medium- to long-term approach as opposed to an emergency response.

The approach should include:

  • Continually build capacities in key institutions, including better functioning veterinary services with the necessary powers to implement essential control measures and regulations.
  • Make sustainable adjustments to the poultry sector to reduce risks of disease and infection in settings where commercial poultry production and marketing practices carry high risks of HPAI.
  • Effective engagement of private-sector stakeholders (including industrial poultry producers) in risk-reduction efforts.
  • Sustained political commitment.
  • Applying appropriate interim control measures, including vaccination, to contain infection.

Each point in the production and marketing chain should be examined to assess areas of risk. Special attention must be paid to alleviating the impact of control measures on vulnerable human populations, the strategy further stresses.

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